Remembering The Second African Burial Ground

Remembering the Second African Burial Ground 
By Imani Vieira
Written in part of a series honoring the Black Histories in the LES

During an excavation for the General Services Administration federal government office building at 290 Broadway in the financial district of Manhattan in 1991, hundreds of human remains were unearthed. What was discovered  was the first African burial ground for enslaved and free people of New York City, the oldest to exist in the country. It took nearly two centuries for the first African Burial Ground to be uncovered and recognized as a Historic Landmark, but through grassroots efforts and petitions to recognize the site, the First African Burial Ground became a National Monument in 2006.

A few miles away in the Lower East Side lies the very same story; the final resting place of enslaved and freed Black New Yorkers, built over and lacking the necessary acknowledgment that all those who are buried there deserve.

In 1794, a year after the closing of the first African Burial Ground, The African Society asked the City of New York for a piece of property on the west side of Chrystie between Stanton and Rivington. According to the African Society, the land was to be used as “Grounds as a Burial place to Bury Black persons of every denomination and description whatever in this City whether Bond or Free.” With the help of various individuals, the African Society was eventually able to purchase the land. What once was 195-197 Chrystie Street (—now parts of the New Museum and Sara D. Roosevelt Park)—became the site of the Second African Burial Ground, one of the only burial grounds for free and enslaved Black New Yorkers between 1795 and 1843 in the city.  The entrance to the burial ground was on Freeman’s Alley, which still exists today, and which may have been named to honor the site.

The land was then sold over to St. Philip’s Church, the first African American Episcocal parish in New York City. St. Philip’s was able to maintain the land as a burial ground until about 1835, when they reported they were full to capacity and in danger of being fined. Due to the growing population of New York City, parts of the cemetery were then  developed and the burial ground began to deteriorate. In 1852, the burial ground was closed for good. St. Philip’s purchased a parcel of land in Cypress Hills,  bodies were reinterred, and the original site was eventually completely built over.

Cemetery reinterments were common during the 19th century, but not very thorough. Often, headstones would be moved but the majority of the physical bodies in a cemetery or burial ground would be left behind. It is unclear how many bodies were actually reinterred as original records of the cemetary show 5,000 people, while records at Cypress Hills show 458 reinterments. In 2006, during the construction of the New Museum, human remains were found and excavated. One can only assume that many more bodies were left behind and continue to be under the streets and sidewalks of Chrystie Street.

Image by Allison Meier, Hyperallergic

The only acknowledgment of the Second African Burial Ground lives within the name of the M’Finda Kalunga Garden, named in memory of the burial ground; meaning “Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World” and a small physical marker outside the garden. Located within Sara D. Roosevelt Park, M’Finda Kalunga was founded in 1983 as a way to counteract the park’s increased drug activities and crime. The garden continues to serve as a community space and holds a Juneteenth celebration each year inviting community members in the garden to celebrate the longest known celebration of the ending of slavery.

A small plaque outside the M’Finda Kalunga Garden is the only physical marker honoring the site that was once the Second African Burial Ground. It is only right and just that we pay homage and respect to the Black New Yorkers who built and created such a large legacy in this city. Just as it was after the first discovery of remains at 290 Broadway, it will be up to individuals and grass root efforts to get the city to recognize the contributions of the many Black New Yorkers who built this city, both physically and through their legacies.


Readings, Resources

The M’Finda Kalunga Garden 
Hyperallergic- When Will There Be a Memorial? 
NY Cemetery Project – African Burial Ground
Database of Enslaved People Buried at the Second African Burial Ground 
Tenement Museum, African Burial Ground National Monument
New Museum, Land Acknowledgement 
St. Philips Episcopal Church Cemetery Intensive Documentary


Five Points

Five Points By Imani Vieira
By Imani Vieira
Written in part of a series of honoring the Black Histories in the LES

Five Points was the site of the first Free Black Settlement, eventually evolving into a neighborhood with the highest concentration of Black New Yorkers by the 1830s. It is notorious for stories of early gang life in New York City and often recognized as one of the city’s  first “slums.” To those who lived there — formerly enslaved and free Black New Yorkers, Irish and German immigrants — it was a neighborhood where they were able to survive and live as best as they could, despite being the most marginalized people in the city. Unfortunately, Black New Yorkers would eventually become displaced from Five Points in the 1860s due to years of racial tension and violent attacks, not only in the neighborhood but sparked all across the city.

In the 1820s, Five Points was home to abolitionist and mutual aid organizations. One of the most well known was  the African Society of Mutual Aid Relief, known as “the crown jewel of all Black organizations.” Founded in 1808, the African Society  moved to Five Points in 1820 at 42 Orange Street. Their mission was to secure financial support, equity, and freedom to Black New Yorkers.  During the era of slavery, they openly flaunted their politcal agenda and power in establishing Black “citizenshp” in New York.

Other organizations located within Five Points were Chatham Chapel, where black and white abolitionists met. Churches in the area such as St. Philip’s African Episcopal Church and the African Bethlehem Church were part of the Underground Railroad, as were many of the homes in Five Points, and  Black Abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnett worked in the neighborhood  as a part of the American Missionary Association.

White philanthropists, with the idea that education led to integration and offered an opportunity beyond slavery to Black New Yorkers, decided to house the African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street in 1820, right in the heart of Five Points. It became alternatively known as the Mulberry Street School and this effort led to a new generation of educated free Black people; the Nation’s first African American pharmacists, doctors, lawyers and leaders of the day, known as the “Black Elite.”

Although “The Black Elite” were able to establish themselves into New York Society during an era of slavery and the disenfranchisment of Black people not only in New York but around the world, Five Points remained a neighborhood of the most marginalized and the image of the neighborhhod as a crime-ridden slum was exasterbated by the rapid increase of an immigrant population settling in Lower Manhattan in search of work and opportunity. Five Points became a target for anti-abolitionists and as early as 1834, anti-aboltion protests resulted in violence against white and Black abolitionists. White mobs looted St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the African Society for Mutual Relief, pushing 500 Black people to flee the community.

A decrease in Black residents with the increased Irish immigration in the 1820s and 30s led to racial tensions within the community itself as Irish and Black people were forced to compete for low wage jobs and opportunities — but the ‘by default’ integrated living also influenced the art that was created and inspired by the neighborhood. Master Juba, born William Henry Lane in Rhode Island, came to Five Points as a teen and began competing in Irish saloons. He experimented and mixed steps of the Irish jig and African American vernacular dance. He then traveled all over the world, overshadowing white minstrel performers of the day, something that was completely unheard of before him.

Famous writer Charles Dickens even frequented the mixed dance halls of the neighborhood and enjoyed the dancing he witnessed, but he began to spread an idea of a connection between high rates of crime and the racial dynamics of the community, and his depiction of the neighborhood gave rise to a media frenzy. Narratives of high rates of crime and violence due to ‘racial mixing’ and the integrated living between Black, German and Irish immigrants were pushed by hearsay and the media. Five Points became widely known not only as a slum, famous for its poverty, but as a place of prostitution, gambling, and mixed race dance halls — and to many residents of New York City outside of the Five Points area, middle class Black New Yorkers included, it was a place of scandal and embarrassment.

Of course, high rates of crime had little to do with racial mixing and more to do with a lack of resources due to the government ignoring the most marginalized of people. The propaganda of crime and violence stemming from integrated living was a false conclusion rooted in racism. Using Black people as the scapegoat of poverty was racist.

In the 1850s, continued rapid increase in population due to immigration led to serious competition among the residents of Five Points as they fought to rise above their social status and integrate themselves into New York society through various means.

The racial tension that went along with both this competition and the rise of the Civil War in the United States came to a boil in New York City during the Draft Riots of 1863. Black New Yorkers were openly attacked, assaulted, and killed by White people, mostly by poor Irish, who were angry at being drafted into the war and mistakenly believed that their Black neighbors were the reason for the war and thus at fault for the draft. The Draft Riots remain the most brutal attacks on Black New Yorkers until this day — and they are only recently being acknowledged for what they were; Race Riots. It is important that we recognize the need for this change of language to honor the experience of Black New Yorkers and the violence they endured.

Although many Black New Yorkers remained in Five Points, and were even protected by their white neighbors (a testament to the community relationships that were forged across racial lines), many others fled New York entirely after these attacks, forever changing their relationship to the place they once called home. Black leaders of the time called for and implored Black New Yorkers to stay in the city, but the damage was done. The Black population of Five Points decreased and the Black population of the city dropped by 20%. Marchita Lyons, of the Lyons Family who grew very successful in the neighborhood, later wrote of the attacks in her memoir and the night they fled:

Under the cover of darkness the police conveyed our parents to the Williamsburg ferry;  there, steamboats were kept in readiness to either transport fugitives or to outwit rioters by  pulling out into midstream. To such humiliations, to such outrages, were law abiding  citizens exposed and that in a city where they were domiciled taxpayers. Is it any wonder  that for them New York was never after to be considered home.


The displacement of Black New Yorkers in Five Points is not a singular story: Tulsa, Rosewood, Elaine, Atlanta — the list of Black neighborhoods and communities being massacred and pushed out of their neighborhood because of the “threat” they posed to white residents in the same area is shamefully long. And though many Black New Yorkers were able to thrive in other areas of the city and build strong communities which continue to fight displacement to this day, the first free Black Settlement was ultimately lost due to racially-motivated attacks. While walking the streets of what used to be Five Points, it is important to  imagine the neighborhood that once existed and the Black residents who were able to create a center of life for themselves at a time when they were not even considered “full” citizens.


Readings, Resources
Mapping the African American Past – Five Points 
Black Past – Five Points District, New York City, New York
People’s LES- 1863 The Civil War Draft Riots, written by Dakota Scott 
Library of Congress – Tap Dance in America, a short history h
Britannica – Master Juba
Carla Peterson – Black Gotham 

“Separate but Equal”: From the African Free Schools to the New York City Public School System

“Separate but Equal”: From the African Free Schools to the New York City Public School System
By Imani Vieira
Written in part of a series of honoring the Black Histories in the LES

Education for enslaved people in New York during Antebellum America was a rarity. But there were a few people, white abolitionists mostly, who believed that education was the way to equality. They believed it was the first step in creating a generation of people who could successfully integrate into New York ‘society’ and could experience a life beyond the cruelty of slavery.

The New York Manumission Society was founded to further abolishment of slavery in New York and believed in the power of education to foster integration. Though many members continued to be enslavers themselves, beginning in 1785, they pushed to end the sale of enslaved people imported in New York State. Later in 1799, a gradual emancipation was passed, it did not actually free any enslaved people, it provided “freedom” to children born of enslaved mothers… but indentured them until they were young adults.

The African Free School was founded in 1787 in lower Manhattan by the New-York Manumission Society, by Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. The School was established during slavery in New York State, the first of its kind in the country, and by the time of its absorption into the New York Public School System in 1835, it had educated thousands of children within its seven schools across Lower Manhattan. The complete emancipation of enslaved people in New York State happened in 1827, making it the first state to abolish slavery in its totality.

The mission of the African Free School system was to educate Black children to ultimately “integrate into New York society” and many African Free School alumni went on to be prominent African American leaders.

Famous alumni include Dr. James McCune Smith; the first African American to earn a university medical degree and work as a physician, actor Ira Aldridge, educator Charles Lewis Reason, missionary and educator Alexander Crummell, and abolitionist and community leader Henry Highland Garnet.

The African Free School started as a one-room school with about 40 enrolled students, most of whom were children of enslaved people. After a fire took the original building, the Manumission Society moved the Free School to a building on Mulberry Street, right in the heart of Five Points, a community with the highest concentration of Black New Yorkers at the time. School records show a registration of over 500 children.

Although numbers showed a large enrollment at the Free School in Five Points, attendance said otherwise. Students missed school due to work, lack of proper clothing, and ultimately growing tensions between white administrators and Black parents.

The New York African Free School Collections calls us to reexamine the complexity of relationship and social norms at play:

As complicated and ambiguous as these materials are, the historical records of the New York African Free School jolt us out of conventional ways of looking at education, allowing us to view the process as a set of performances in which a school’s administrators, teachers, and students are all working—sometimes together, sometimes in conflict—to create a pathway from childhood to adulthood, as well as (in this case) from slavery to freedom.

In the earliest days of the school, most teachers were white, but as the school expanded, Black teachers were hired as well; one of the earliest examples of a mixed-race faculty of educators in the US. Unfortunately, parents were often treated as inferior to the teachers or even to the students themselves (their own children) due to their status in society: either still enslaved or formerly enslaved.

Writings from some students show they adopted a favoring of Eurocentric behaviors and beauty standards, leading them to look down on their enslaved parents and families. However, other students found themselves questioning the administration and outwardly expressing conflicted attitudes towards White people, which led to anxiety in the White administrators and teachers at the Free School around what the mission of the school could do to foster a potential shift and rise to ‘power’ of Black leaders through education.

Since there are mixed accounts of how the students and administrators felt towards the school and the mission it tried to enact, the legacy of the African Free School is a complicated one. The students were given a platform to “enact” ideas of freedom rather than truly be free. They still had extremely limited rights in society. The question around what worlds truly open up for Black New Yorkers after receiving an education contradicts the idea that education was the main answer to racial integration.

Education has been and continues to be a crucial human right, whether during slavery, Jim Crow, or today. Education also continues to give us an understanding around how to move racial equity forward. But we must push educational institutions, even now, to truly make commitments beyond further funding, which doesn’t seem to foster radical change or integration. Though the Manumission Society leaders committed money to supporting young Black students, the model of the African Free School didn’t show a commitment to otherwise furthering opportunities for young Black ‘members of society’ beyond the school room.

In 1834, the African Free School system was absorbed into the New York Public School System. African Free School students were integrated into the same system as white students, but they remained segregated, little changed in their social status, and educational conditions for Black children of New York eventually worsened. As segregation continued, Jim Crow laws took rule, defining the education of Black children for decades.

We must recognize that the decisions of adults are affecting children — who deserve a fair and truthful education.

Much like through the abolition of slavery, there has been great pushback from white New Yorkers around integration in education. Many progressive White people in the 1960s claimed to believe in integration of schools but not in bussing students between neighborhoods–or they claimed to have “far too much to worry about ” at home than to also worry about failing schools or the lack of resources in other neighborhoods or school districts.

Even now, White New Yorkers all over the city still show resistance to proposed plans for integrating the Public School system beyond further funding schools who are under-resourced– even as recently as during the DeBlasio administration despite current rates of segregation in the city showing that, in some parts, it is worse than it was in the 60s. New York State is leading the nation in segregated schools. In 2019, it was revealed that of the 895 slots for incoming freshmen at Stuyvesant High School, a highly selective public high school in Lower Manhattan, only 7 slots were offered to Black students. Integration should not be defined as a “separate but equal” education, which is still the case over 150 years after the founding of the African Free School, but rather to truly give all students of New York City, regardless of race or socio-economic class an equal and FAIR opportunity.

Educational institutions cannot function at their full capacity if the minds of adults and policies outside educational systems do not change. This is a part of the larger commitment to reparations the city must recognize. If education is the ‘key’ to ‘advancement in society’ we have to look at how that is actually being set up. Black and Latinx children are the most affected by racist school policies and lack of resources in schools, but radical integration would be a benefit for all students. It is necessary not only for the betterment of the public school system as a whole, but also to further a commitment to racial equity across New York City for future generations.

Readings, Resources
New York Times – Segregation Has Been the Story of New York City’s Schools for 50 Years
New York History – Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection 
Village Preservation – African Free School, First in America for Black Students, Found a Home in Greenwich Village

A Note of Thanks – 10.31.18

Dear Community,

I want to pause to send you a note of thanks.

The work we do in the Lower East Side is often long-term and the difference we make can be slow-moving and incremental.  But every once in a while, something changes in a very definite way.

FAB was just involved with such a change — and it seems right to mark it and to share it with you, because you’re part of this story.

Continue reading “A Note of Thanks – 10.31.18”